Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I needed Damascus to decompress. Parking myself in a guesthouse, I intended to chill for only a few days and head on toward Jordan. Things change...

I ended up meeting an English girl named Leonie who had studied in Damascus before and was coming back to see friends and brush up on her Arabic. She was kind enough to invite me out to meet her friends at a cultural center in Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian camp in Syria. The center was run by local Palestinian volunteers and was non-political. Because of this, they refused funding from any Palestinian political factions and were forced to run on nearly nothing other than the good will of its volunteers. I was introduced to a really kind man named Deeb and he invited us to break Ramadan fast the next day with his family.

That was a meal to remember. The next day we were driven to the far outskirts of Damascus to a park marking the boundary between concrete apartment buildings and rural countryside. As the sun set, we prepared food with Deeb's approximately 20 family members and played a card game called Abu Foul.
*important note: Palestinians cheat at cards

After a hilarious few minutes watching the brothers try to get the coals going, the meat was on the grill and the call to prayer was blasted from the minarets. We feasted. One of Deeb's brother in laws made me eat a piece of raw sheep liver. Other than that it was all quite delicious. After the first round of food, a few people got together and played music (Oud, tambourine and tabla). Then horrible Arabic children's pop music was blasted and some kids came out in animal costumes and became to dance with all the children. As entertaining as it was, my ears were about to start bleeding, so Deeb and I took a seat in the far corner of the park while Leonie fended for herself among the relatives. The conversation was one of the best of my trip. I was deeply inspired by Deeb's commitment to peaceful means of helping his fellow Palestinians. I couldn't help it but I had to ask about Hamas. What did he think of them, and was their leadership really based in Yarmouk?

-Hamas is like a relative that you really don't like because he is a bad person but he is still family."
-Why is he bad?
-They advocate violence and employ former criminals to act as enforcers. And though they point to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority's corruption, they are equally as corrupt.
-I know the leadership is based in Damascus, are they in Yarmouk?
-You want to see Hamas? Go to Mezze (the richest district of Damascus). That's were they are.
-Really? (This really surprised me)
-Think about it, they get all this funding from radical religious governments and they have no way of getting it into Gaza so they spend it on themselves here.

We moved back to the family and grabbed Leonie for a little walk up the road before coming back for more food. Finally after 2:00 am the party was over and we returned to the guesthouse.

I was planning to get moving after some exploration of the old city but I one night I met a French girl who in turn met the head of the Health Department of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and we went to meet him at his work the next day. Adam, a Sudanese man for had worked for Borders without Borders for a decade, was relatively new to the UN scene. He was now overseeing the health support for Iraqi refugees in Syria (of which there are 2 million). Everything sounded wonderful. They received decent free health care and were given living stipends. Many thousands were being granted asylum in the US and Europe.

Leaving, more than slightly optimistic about the situation, we next to a nearby shop and bought drinks (even though it was Ramadan) and relaxed for a few moments. After some time, an older woman missing her legs came up to the shop in a wheel chair. I help her get what she needed and paid for it for her. She thanked me and began asking me questions in Arabic and telling me about herself. She was a Shia Iraqi from Najaf (or was it Karbala?) and she had lost her legs in a car bombing. The same explosion claimed the lives of her three sons. I wished her all the peace and luck I could with my limited Arabic and gave her 100 Syrian pounds (a little more than 2 dollars). Caroline and I walked away and I felt like I was being torn apart. We hit a park and I asked to sit for a second.

I wept.

This woman's suffering was a result of my country's foreign policy. I faced it; as an American for a moment and then as just a human being.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Lebanon in Fragments (part 3)

Alright here it goes...

After a failed attempt at teaching a Lebanese girl how to ride my bicycle (my fault not hers), a great swimming trip up the coast and some more general insanity, I left Beirut. Pedaling up the windy road crossing the Mount Lebanon range, I was drenched in sweat. The general stickiness was amplified by the humidity. Near the top (after some stunning views) I hit some low clouds. Quite suddenly I was cold for the first time in months and loved it. The clouds/fog became quite thick and soon my visibility was limited to less than 50 feet. I accidently ended up on a small road though some eerily quiet towns. Stopping for a drink from my water bottle, the fog temporarily lightened and I found myself in front of a Scooby Doo style abandoned mansion. Getting higher and higher I ended up stopping to chat with some Greek Orthodox guys who, after some offers of tea and biscuits and a pleasant discussion about the mountains, launched into a tirade against the Shia and Hizbollah. I finally reached the top and after accepting a free water bottle and bread from some Indian migrants who were delighted that I knew three words of Hindi and I began my descent to the Bekaa Valley. Quickly emerging from the mists I was greeted by a specacular view of the valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range. Stopping for food in a small town on my way to Zahle, I met Khalid who insisted that I come break Ramadan fast with his family at sunset (this quickly transformed into an invitation to stay a few nights).

The town was Sunni Muslim and I was asked what I believed. I said I didn't really know (usually you just say whatever is convenient because these matters are rarely up for debate). I went into some details about my philosophy and how I try to live my life. They were positively delighted.

"You're almost a Muslim!"

I was taken for a late night invitation to sweets at Khalid's father's friend's house. The man was incredibly fascinated by my trip and my knowledge of Islam. Though Khalid spoke decent English, the man brought out his daughter, who studied English and computer science, to act as a translator. At first glance I could tell that the family was very conservative. She wore a traditional black hijab and long, loose dress. covering all but her face and hands. The girl acted very professionally as if she was a translator for a business meeting. Half way through, she paused and her father explained that I had ridden a bicycle here from Georgia. Her otherwise serious face cracked a huge smile. That moment made all the suffering of pedalling up the mountains earlier that day worth it.

I agreed to fast and perform Salaat (prayer) with them the next day. We woke at 4:00, finished eating before 4:24 went to pray at the mosque right away and then talked witht the Sheikhs in the mosque. They were so intrigued by this curious American that they invited Khalid and I to sleep the rest of the morning in the mosque and then speak with them after. Six more hours of sleep and I was already hungry. Ramadan is cruel to a cyclist, especially if that cyclist has just come over a mountain range and needs nutrients. We chatted with the Sheikhs for a few hours, during which we discussed Islamic philosophy, Quranic Arabic and, most excitedly, Lebanese food. After a little time on the internet and a few hours helping Khalid at his volunteer program teaching young Muslim Children about the Quran and playing games (like Christian Bible School) I laid on the balcony, miserably willing the sun to set. I think the volume of food I consumed that night was taken by the family as a compliment to their cooking abilities and hospitality. Khalid's mother smiled and piled more and more food on my plate. After the last prayer at the mosque Khalid gave me a traditional robe and a Quran with the promise that I keep thinking and trying to understand the world.

I left for Syria with a bundle of food from Khalid's family. In the next town I had to borrow a few tools from a mechanic to adjust my seat and realized that in 3km the population had become solidly Christian. I passed through what appeared to be another Palestinian camp while racing a young boy with his bicycle I came to the city of Aanjar (with it's massive Armenian population) and bought some drinks at a road side vendor. After paying, I began chatting to the guy in my horrible Arabic and told him I was headed for Damascus. "I'm from Damascus!" he cried in Arabic and reached into his cash box to return the money I paid him for the drinks. "Ahlan wa sahlan!" (the welcome I had heard thousands of times.

The haul from the Lebanese border post to the Syrian side was long and hot. Arriving at the Syrian immigration controls I met another American also waiting for a visa (Americans wait 4-8 hours for a mysterious "fax from Damascus"). We feasted on the food Khalid gave me and enjoyed a welcome rest. Welcomed by the familiar face of President Bashar I rode afew more hours and, suddenly, I was in Damascus.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


In Irbid, Jordan just a few hours ride from the Jordan River.

Almost 2 weeks behind. But here I finally have easy access to this website (it is blocked in Syria so I could only occaisonly find ways around it) and I can admit that I started this trip with an 11 day stay in Israel before flying to Georgia (a fact that would have gotten me deported or imprisoned in Lebanon and Syria). While in Syria, Israel was codenamed "Disneyland," leading to rather confusing talk of Mickey, Minnie, Space Mountain, Mouseketeers and Disneyland security.

I am about two weeks behind in this report.

Will eventually catch up but I think I am going to ride hard for Nazareth, Disneyland today and find a net cafe there. The journey is coming to an end.